Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has announced that he will not stand for re-election in the LDP’s leadership contest on September 29th – effectively meaning that he will step down as prime minister by the end of the month, only a year after he took office in the wake of Abe Shinzo’s resignation. His decision follows a couple of weeks in which Suga appears to have tried various different strategies to shore up his support within the party in the face of plummeting public approval ratings, including a planned cabinet reshuffle which would have given senior roles to some of the likely leadership challengers, and the potential removal of long-serving LDP secretary general and Suga’s former key ally Nikai Toshihiro in an attempt to win the support of Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, Nikai’s rivals. Even the possibility – or perhaps threat – of a rapid snap election ahead of the LDP leadership contest seemed to be on the table at one point, though the instant backlash to this being reported in the media saw Suga quickly disown the notion.
Although Suga seemed prepared to contest the leadership election as recently as Thursday, all his machinations were to no avail. Against a fairly uninspiring field of candidates with no clear front-runner, he might even have won, relying on LDP members being mindful that changing leaders twice during a single year (and in a pandemic crisis, no less) might be seen even less favorably by voters than standing firm behind an unpopular leader. By Friday morning, however, Suga appeared to have taken a look at the cards remaining in his deck and decided he didn’t have a winning hand – or, perhaps, that this wasn’t a contest he especially wanted to win anyway.
Eventually, biographies and interviews will provide a clearer picture of the short-lived Suga Administration, but for now one question to which there’s no clear answer is whether Suga ever actually wanted to be prime minister in the first place. Serving as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary for eight years, a position markedly increased in power and prestige by government reforms over the past two decades, effectively made him into the government’s top administrator, which suited his managerial approach very well. He never appeared to be setting himself up as a potential successor to Abe; he avoided joining a faction (usually seen as a prerequisite for a leadership bid) and did little or nothing to raise his own personal profile independently of his role as Abe’s top administrator. When Abe stepped down in August of last year, Suga’s selection as leader – backed by Nikai and other party bosses – always felt a little like a caretaker appointment. No truly ambitious politician would be keen to take their one shot at the top job in the middle of a global pandemic, and Suga was a known quantity with no significant power base of his own, who already had his hand firmly on the tiller of government, thus avoiding a messy transition period in the middle of a crisis. He could steer the government through the pandemic and easily be replaced afterwards at the whim of the party’s powerful faction bosses.
It would have taken a remarkable politician to turn the situation to their advantage – but Suga is not a remarkable politician
This may have been a poisoned chalice from the outset. It would have taken a remarkable politician to turn the situation to their advantage, faced not only with the public health and economic ramifications of the global pandemic and the inevitable disputes over the delayed Olympic Games, but also with a ticking clock that gave the new prime minister only a year before they would have to face both an internal leadership election and a national general election. For all his competence as a government administrator, Suga is not a remarkable politician; he has no gift for inspiring or connecting with ordinary citizens, and his often morose, irritable demeanor was almost uniquely unsuited to a time when the government was making difficult requests to a public already frustrated and strung out by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. As his year in office wore on, Suga seemed increasingly tired and miserable in his public appearances – most notably at the Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies, where his exhausted, funereal expression was seen by an audience of many millions and might reasonably have led the public to wonder why he would even want to continue in this role in the first place.
His decision to step down will be a relief to some in the LDP, especially younger lawmakers and those in marginal seats who have been regarding the upcoming general election with an increasing sense of panic as Suga’s support ratings have inched ever lower. It’s extremely unlikely that the upcoming election will see the LDP actually forced from office (although losing the two-thirds majority the coalition government currently enjoys is certainly on the cards), despite the flashing warning signs for the government’s support in the form of opinion polls and some high-profile electoral losses, such as the opposition’s recent victory in the Yokohama mayoral election. But that’s cold comfort if you’re one of the party members who stands to lose their seat in the election, and much of the impetus to replace Suga and fight the election with a fresh face in charge seems to have come from backbench LDP politicians who fear precisely that outcome.
The bigger question is whether this means Japan is reverting to another era of “revolving door” prime ministers
For others, however – not least some of the party’s most senior figures – Suga’s resignation creates a quandary. It returns the LDP to the same problem it had last summer: an empty leadership seat that no truly ambitious politician would really want to fill, given that the first order of business will be steering the party into a general election at which it will almost certainly lose a large number of seats. An optimistic reading is that low expectations for the election are “baked in,” so the next leader will be able to shrug off poor results and then enjoy improving approval ratings as the pandemic comes to an end and citizens’ lives and economic situations improve. But it’s equally likely that the pandemic has a few twists and turns left in it, and leadership candidates will be keenly aware that there’s also an Upper House election in 2022 in which a poor performance for the LDP would likely precipitate yet another change of leadership.
That, in a sense, is the bigger picture here, both for the LDP itself and for the Japanese public; the question of whether Suga’s resignation after a single year in office is a signal that Japan is reverting to the “revolving door” system of weak, short-term prime ministers. After the administration of Koizumi Junichiro, who used his personal popularity and a strategic snap election in 2005 to successfully face down powerful factions and interest groups within the LDP itself, much was written about the “presidentialization” (or at least “Westministerization”) of Japan’s politics and the growing power and public profile of the prime minister’s office. Koizumi, however, was followed by no fewer than six weak, largely ineffective prime ministers who served for a single year apiece – three from the LDP, and three from the DPJ – which boosted the argument that Koizumi’s success was less to do with institutional change and reform and more to do with his own personal characteristics as a leader. Abe Shinzo’s eight years in power turned the argument around again, especially as he continued to concentrate administrative power within the prime minister’s office (a process largely directed by Suga, in his role as chief cabinet secretary). Suga’s one-year tenure will now raise fears that the revolving door is back, and will likely grant fresh life to the “individualist” arguments (that Abe and Koizumi’s power were a consequence of their personal characteristics) rather than the “institutionalist” arguments.
Suga may have known how to operate the levers of power, but exercising power still rests on the support of either the public or the party
In truth, there’s merit to both arguments – the institutional arrangements of Japan’s government generally and the prime minister’s office, the Kantei, more specifically have certainly changed in a way that grants vastly more power over both the executive functions of government and the legislative agenda to the prime minister and their inner circle. But actually wielding that power effectively requires the prime minister to have a source of their own authority. Koizumi could wield power even in the face of rebellion within his party because he enjoyed enormous public support; Abe could weather scandals and dips in public support because he had learned to be very effective at managing and marshalling the LDP’s lawmakers and internal factions. After eight years as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, Suga knew perfectly well how to operate all of the Kantei’s levers and buttons – but in the absence of support from either the party or the public, the institutional power at his fingertips turned out to mean little. Power still rests on the personal political capital and influence of the person at the top.
With the LDP’s biggest beasts conspicuously avoiding throwing their hats into the ring for the leadership this time, it seems very unlikely that the next prime minister will be another long-serving, powerful leader. Whoever takes the role will have to work hard to fight the assumption that they are merely a seatwarmer before the next really significant leader comes along. The party will also be conscious that the public doesn’t seem very keen for revolving door prime ministers: the LDP lost a historic landslide election in 2009 after three weak, unpopular, short-term prime ministers, and the DPJ subsequently lost another landslide election in 2012 after three weak, unpopular, short-term prime ministers. Panicking and defenestrating every leader whose opinion poll numbers slide is a short-term strategy at best – and while an opposition win this autumn is a vanishingly remote possibility, the LDP should hope that Suga’s short-lived administration is not a sign of the party slipping back into old habits.